Monday 23 October 2017

Bridges v Hopkins

Born on this day in 1844 was the poet Robert Bridges, whose greatest contribution to English literature was his collecting and eventual publication of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The two men met at Oxford and were lifelong friends thereafter. However, they were a very odd couple, in most respects as different from each other as chalk and cheese – Bridges firmly anti-Catholic and conservative in all things, including poetry, and Hopkins devoutly Catholic and open to currents of thought and ways of writing verse that were quite repugnant to Bridges. The relationship between the two friends, who undoubtedly had a deep affection for each other, would be better understood if Bridges hadn't, after Hopkins' death, had all his (Bridges') letters to him returned and destroyed (though one survived).
 Bridges clearly did not understand or appreciate his friend's poetry, and was reluctant to publish it (a reluctance endorsed by his fellow poet Coventry Patmore). He might have been right to hesitate, as Hopkins' verse, if published in quantity in the 1880s or 1890s, could well have been dismissed as the most outlandish experimentation. When eight of his poems were published in an anthology in 1893 (five years after Hopkins' death), Bridges included a note on the poet, which ended uninvitingly:

'Poems as far removed as his come to be from the ordinary simplicity of grammar and meter, had they no other drawback, could never be popular, for they have this plain fault, that, aiming at an unattainable perfection of language, they not only sacrifice simplicity, but very often, among verses of the rarest beauty, show a neglect of those canons of taste which seem common to all poetry.'

 Even when Bridges finally brought out a proper edition of Hopkins's poems in 1918, he attached a minatory preface that could scarcely have been more negative:

'Apart from faults of taste, which, few as they numerically are, yet affect my liking and more repel my sympathy than do all the rude shocks of his purely artistic wantonness – apart from these, there are definite faults of style which a reader must have courage to face, and must in some measure condone before he can discover the great beauties.'

Well, cheers, Bob – thanks for that ringing endorsement...
 Since then, of course, the whirligig of time has brought in its revenges: Robert Bridges, one-time Poet Laureate, survives only in a few anthology pieces (like this one), while Hopkins is regarded as one of the great (or, at the very least, 'major minor') English poets.

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